The son of a miller who regularly distributed food and provisions to the poor, as did his mother, Tomás García y Martínez grew up and was educated in Villanueva de los Infantes, in the province of Ciudad Real, Spain, thus the name Thomas of Villanueva. In spite of his family's wealth, as a young boy he often went about naked, because he had given his clothing to the poor.
Thomas entered the University of Alcalá de Henares to study Arts and Theology at the age of sixteen. He later became a professor there, teaching arts, logic, and philosophy, despite a continuing absentmindedness and poor memory. Eventually, he joined the Augustinian friars in Salamanca and became renowned for his eloquent and effective preaching in the churches there. He became noted for his beautiful sermons, some of which stand out as great examples of sacred oratory of the sixteenth century. Emperor Charles V, upon hearing him preach, exclaimed, "This monsignor can move even the stones!" Charles named Thomas one of his Councilors of State and Court Preacher in Valladolid, the residence of the Emperor when on his visits to the Low Countries.
His scathing attacks on his fellow bishops earned him the title of ‘Reformer’. He even sermonized against the cruelty of bullfighting, but to no avail. He also had a great devotion to the Virgin Mary, whose heart he compared to the burning bush of Moses that is never consumed.
Within the Order, he successively held the positions of Prior of his local monastery, Visitor General, and Prior Provincial for Andalusia and Castile. In 1533, he sent out the first Augustinian friars to arrive in Mexico. When Charles V offered him the post of Archbishop of Granada, he refused to accept it. When nominated as Archbishop of Valencia, he continued to refuse the position until ordered to accept by his superior. Given a donation to decorate his residence, he sent the money to a hospital in need of repair. He began his episcopacy by visiting every parish in the Archdiocese to discover what were needed by the people, thereby putting in order an Archdiocese that for a century had not had direct pastoral government. He organized a special college for Moorish converts and set up an effective plan for social assistance, welfare, and charity.
Well known for his great personal austerity, he even sold the straw mattress on which he slept in order to give the money to the poor. He wore the same habit that he had received in the novitiate, mending it himself. His continuous charitable efforts towards orphans, poor women without a dowry, and the sick made him known as the “Father of the Poor”. Thomas, however, had an intelligent notion of charity, so that while he was very charitable, he sought to obtain a solution to the problem of poverty by giving work to the poor, thereby making his charity bear fruit. "Charity is not just giving, rather removing the need of those who receive charity and liberating them from it when possible," he wrote. He established boarding schools and high schools. He died in Valencia at the age of sixty seven and was buried at the Cathedral there.
This molave statue of Sto. Tomas de Villanueva must certainly have been one of those that stood in a retablo of a Cebu church. It shows him as an Archbishop with a miter and a crozier, with an accompanying statue of a beggar at his foot pleading for alms. The bag of coins he is often depicted with, symbolizing the alms he gave to the poor, is now missing. His episcopal robes are magnificently gilded in the estofado style so typical of Cebu, with the entire raiment covered with twenty two-karat gold leaf and colorful designs painted over the gold. The state
of preservation of the gilding and polychrome is remarkable, considering that the image is over two centuries old. This is due to the dry climate of Cebu, which resembles that of Mexico and Spain.